Blake’s 7: Deliverance (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When the Liberator spots a spaceship crashing onto a planet, they look for survivors – but the search leads to some crewmembers being taken hostage and others making a shock discovery…

Series A, episode 12. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 20 March 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* From her clinical, cold office aboard a spinning space station, Servalan (3) is keeping tabs on a spaceship. She seems pleased when it begins to break up above a planet – and we later learn why. One of its occupants, Ensor, had offered to sell her a technological marvel called Orac for 100 million credits; rather than pay up, Servalan has plotted to kill him. She then tasks Travis with recovering Orac in secret.
* When Blake (12) and his team spot a ship crashing, they find a badly injured survivor – Ensor. He has some energy cells with him, which must be rushed to his dying father. He also says the Federation are going to pay him a fortune for something called Orac. But when Blake refuses to travel to Ensor’s home because some of his colleagues are still down on the nearby planet, Ensor blackmails him into leaving. Ensor dies from his wounds before they get there.
* Avon (11) leads what another sci-fi show might call the away team who look for crash survivors. They locate Ensor and take him back to the Liberator. But Jenna has gone missing, so Avon, Gan and Vila return to the planet to search for her. When attacked by caveman-like natives, the trio take refuge behind a metal door in a hillside. Inside they find a beautiful but naïve women who thinks Avon is a long-prophecised god…
* Jenna (12) also goes on the search team. She and Gan find an escape capsule with a dead body in it, then she’s accidentally left behind on the planet and attacked by the savage locals. They tie her up in a tent, in the way that generic savage locals often do in adventure stories.
* Cally (9) gets to operate the teleport controls this week. In one of Blake’s 7’s more off-the-wall moments, she also puts on a pair of VR goggles and listens to some jaunty piano jazz! Later, Ensor points a gun at her head to make Blake set course for his home planet.
* Zen (10) is acting much more helpfully these days. He seems to have shrugged off the petulant streak he had in earlier episodes. It’s almost as if he can sense that his role in the drama is about to be usurped by another computer…
* Gan (11) ain’t gonna win any friend-of-the-year awards after losing track of where Jenna is. When he later takes part in the mission to rescue her, he has to remind Avon and Vila that his limiter means he can’t kill any of the natives.
* Vila (12) spots a large footprint when it’s clear Jenna has gone missing. You’d think that’d be an important plot point, wouldn’t you?
* Travis (4) has – since we last saw him – gone through an enquiry due to his failure to catch Blake. He desperately wants his command back and tells Servalan he’s willing to do anything to get it.

Best bit: The episode takes a pleasingly bizarre turn when Avon, Gan and Vila are being chased by the natives. They attempt to break into the metallic door Gan found earlier – then it’s opened from inside by a woman called Meegat. She’s beaming with joy because Avon has finally arrived; she believes him to be her Lord, whose arrival was foretold in a prophecy. Our heroes soon deduce that Meegat’s home is actually a long-abandoned control room; they find a rocket ready to take banks of genetic material to a far-off world. (No phallic symbolism there at all!) Not only are there plenty of comedy looks between the regular characters – Vila and Gan can’t believe that Avon is humouring the poor woman – but the subplot has a nice beginning, middle and end. It’s also another chance for Paul Darrow to *shine* as Avon. You wouldn’t call it a naturalistic performance but it’s so, so watchable. (The number of times that Meegat genuflects by ducking down in front of Avon’s crotch is probably an unintentional gag, though, right?)

Worst bit: Not for the first time, the Liberator crew fail to notice when one of their number doesn’t teleport back from a mission. There are only six of you, guys!

Review: An uneven watch, in part because it’s doing two things. Deliverance is the first half of a two-parter to end the season, so the main plot can’t shake off the feeling that it’s just set-up for next week. But the episode is also trying to tell its own story, so some scenes form a self-contained little scenario. The latter strand is more enjoyable. (Note: I’m writing this blog on 6 February 2018, the 100th anniversary of women being able to vote in the UK. I can’t help noticing that this episode’s main action features three female characters. Two are taken hostage and one is a childlike simpleton.)

Seven micro power cells out of 10

Next episode: Orac

Blake’s 7: Project Avalon (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When resistance leader Avalon is captured by the Federation, Blake and his colleagues mount a rescue attempt…

Series A, episode 9. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 27 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Travis (3) has a new second-in-command: a dead-eyed, cold-blooded and undeniably sexy mutoid played by Glynis Barber. As the story begins, the two of them are on a cold planet looking for a rebel leader called Avalon, who Travis knows has been in contact with Blake. After tracking her down and imprisoning her, Travis uses Avalon as bait to catch Blake – but the plan goes wrong and Travis is relieved of his command.
* Blake (9) tells us that Avalon has started resistance movements on a dozen worlds, and he plans to transport her to a new planet. He arrives too late, though: the Federation have captured her. So Blake and co break into a command base to rescue her. When they return to the Liberator, however, they realise ‘Avalon’ is a robotic imposter.
* Zen (7).
* Jenna (9) is the only member of the team who has seen Avalon before, so she accompanies Blake on his mission.
* Gan (8) spends the episode on the Liberator flight deck. Sadly, all too often he feels like one regular character too many – it seems as if writer Terry Nation has no idea what to do with him. The pull of the number seven is admittedly strong in popular culture: seven deadly sins, the movie Seven, Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, 007, the Seven Dwarves, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Seven Year Itch, 7-inch singles… But in this case it’s more of a hindrance.
* Vila (9) has to teleport down to the planet and join Blake and Jenna when they need his breaking-and-entering skills.
* Cally (6) is now adept at piloting the Liberator. Jenna jokes that she’s taught her too well.
* Avon (8) says, sarcastically, that while he’s eager to meet the famous Avalon it doesn’t mean he wants to travel down to a snow-covered planet where the temperature is 180 below. While Blake and the others are on the planet, the Liberator is found by some Federation pursuit ships. So Avon convinces the others to flee, lose the ships, and hopefully return in time to pick up their colleagues.
* Servalan (2) wafts into the planet’s command bunker in an all-white outfit with furry wrap. She’s come to oversee the captured Avalon’s interrogation, and also to remind Travis that she wants the Liberator as well as Blake. In the episode’s final scene, she actually meets Blake for the first time.

Best bit: Blake tells a reluctant Vila to teleport down to the planet. “It’s cold out there,” moans Vila, “and I’m very susceptible to low temperatures. I’ve got a weak chest.” Avon: “The rest of you’s not very impressive.”

Worst bit: Blake needs to demostrate to his colleagues that a gun is firing less-than-lethal shots. He does this by shooting at a cup on a nearby table. Sadly, actor Gareth Thomas puts the cup down so deliberately and so specifically that it’s obvious he’s placing it on a special-effects lever that’ll flip it into the air at the required moment.

Review: Great stuff. This is a very well-structured script, the storytelling has good energy and pace, and there’s even a nicely disguised plot twist. It’s Blake’s 7 doing an action movie in 50 minutes and everything is impressively staged by director Michael E Briant. Locations are used to their fullest, for example, while a busy fight scene is shot with a handheld camera. There’s also an inventive use of the greenscreen technique to make a phial containing a virus seem strangely alive. Well… *nearly* everything is impressively staged. Sadly we get another glimpse of the shaky, cheap-looking patrol robot last seen in Seek-Locate-Destroy. As well as being beyond naff, it also begs the question why are the Federation using a mechanical sentry that shuffles along at two miles an hour? Elsewhere in the episode is a dextrous, lifelike android who can be programmed to do anything.

Nine Phobon plagues out of 10

Next episode: Breakdown

Blake’s 7: The Web (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator is ensnared by an enormous cobweb in space…

Series A, episode 5. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 30 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Like the rest of the crew, Jenna (5) has found some more new clothes in the Liberator’s storerooms. This week, she’s sporting a rather fetching burgundy dress with pastel detail on the shoulders. Her main contribution to the plot is a moment when the antagonists psychically take over her body and speak through her, which is a bit hammy.
* When the Liberator’s systems go wrong, Blake (5) assumes that one of Avon’s private research projects has caused the issue. But once it becomes clear that someone on a nearby planet is to blame for the ship being tangled up in an interstellar cobweb (no, really), Blake teleports down to the surface. He finds two strange scientists (who turn out to be from Cally’s planet: small galaxy!) and a race of angry midgets called Decimers. The former created the latter via experimentation but now want the energy resources to wipe them out. This puts Blake in a moral dilemma: unless he helps, the Liberator will forever be trapped.
* Cally (2) only joined the crew last episode, but early on here she’s acting very strangely. She sneaks around, boshes Vila over the head, sabotages the ship… But we soon learn she isn’t herself: the scientists are using her via physic powers to trap the Liberator in the web.
* Zen (3) reports that the ship is suffering from a deliberate malfunction.
* As mentioned, Vila (5) is knocked out cold. But his day improves when he finally gets to use the Liberator’s neutron blasters – something he’s been looking forward to.
* When the craziness begins, Avon (4) deduces that Cally is responsible. Well, she did ask about a vital bit of machinery just before it went on the blink. Not for the first time, the strikingly selfish Avon saves Blake’s life (when a small explosion is triggered in the cargo bay). He later moots to Gan that they could moneytise the Liberator’s advanced technology.
* Gan (4) restrains Cally when she’s under the influence of the bad guys.

Best bit: The Decimers storm the scientists’ base and violently tear them apart. I mean, really violently. You see ripped flesh and gore and bones and everything.

Worst bit: There’s an awful lot of boring procedural dialogue aboard the Liberator. Scenes of the regulars on the flight deck and staring at a viewscreen we can’t see seem to go on and on.

Review: As it was produced at the same time, by some of the same people and in the same building, it’s not surprising that Blake’s 7 shares a lot of similarities with Doctor Who. Both were mostly made on brightly lit studio sets. Both used video for indoor scenes and film for exteriors. Both stuck largely to non-diverse casting choices. The Web, however, feels more like an episode of Space: 1999 – despite the vastness of space, our characters randomly bump into something, are threatened by some out-there sci-fi nonsense, and get caught up in the very boring storyline with drab guest characters. Then just as you’re losing the will to carry on, some poor actor has to play a withered head in a water tank. The first rubbish episode.

Four fully charged flutonic power cells out of 10

Next episode: Seek-Locate-Destroy

Blake’s 7: The Way Back (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Earth, the far future. Citizen Roj Blake learns of the authorities’ use of brainwashing, drugs and murder to keep the population under control…

Series A, episode 1. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 2 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Roj Blake (1) is living in a drab, soulless, fascist, dystopian, enclosed city cut off from the outside world when he’s approached by members of a resistance movement. They tell him he’s been brainwashed – he used to be a rebel leader but the state forced him to confess his ‘crimes’ and then wiped his memories. When he’s then caught with the resistance, Blake is arrested and framed on kiddie-fiddling charges (amongst other things). Found guilty after a trial that lasts less than three minutes, he’s loaded onto a spaceship bound for a prison planet… Actor Gareth Thomas is great throughout: you see his character believably transform from naïve bloke to forthright Blake.
* While waiting to board the transport ship, Blake is put in a holding cell with a compulsive thief called Vila Restal (1), who swipes his watch but is otherwise unthreatening. Michael Keating is a lot of fun in his one scene, playing the part with a twinkle in his eye.
* Another prisoner is the smuggler Jenna (1). Sally Knyvette plays her cool and seen-in-it-all-before, then gets a moment or two when the character admits she’s scared.

Best bit: In the scene of Blake being interrogated by an official after his arrest, the vision mixer crossfades between close-ups of the two men. The official is calm and stock-still, while Blake has his head in his hands and is jittery. It’s a striking image.

Worst bit: The title-sequence logo doesn’t have an apostrophe in the word Blake’s! Christ, that’s going to irritate me each and every episode.

Review: The first image we see is a CCTV camera keeping watch over the oppressed citizenry of a fascist state. Later, the police murder innocent people and lawyers fabricate evidence. Blake’s 7, it seems on the basis of this opening episode, is not going to be a laugh-a-minute experience. The tone is cynical, cold and humourless, and the drama seems more like a self-contained morality play than the pilot of a sci-fi adventure show. But it really works. The script has a fantastic sense of foreboding and the dread builds and builds. Blake’s fate seems cruelly inevitable, even if his lawyer (Tel Varon, played by Michael Halsey like he’s the lead character) is a decent guy with a conscience. And the fictional world is convincing and feels like it stretches out beyond the events we see. A very strong start.

Nine judgement machines out of 10

Next episode: Space Fall